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ZZ Top

+ {Billy Gibbons And The BFG’s}

Characterised by the chest-length beards and sunglasses of both Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill – ironically drummer Frank Beard was only moustache’d – southern blues ’n’ boogie combo ZZ TOP (from Houston, Texas) were something of anomaly among the plethora of American outfits to emerge from the 70s. Guitarist Gibbons had led out garage-blues act, The MOVING SIDEWALKS (alongside Don Summers, Dan Mitchell and Tom Moore), who’d supported the likes of JIMI HENDRIX and The DOORS in the flower-power era, while a handful of singles and an album, `Flash’ (1969), created a minor stir among those lucky enough to get a listen; the CD re-issue included the long-lost 45s, `99th Floor’ and a rendition of The BEATLES’ `I Want To Hold Your Hand’; Lanier Greig had now superseded Moore.
Evolving into ZZ TOP, by 1969, the trio of Gibbons, Mitchell and Greig released a debut single on manager Billy Ham’s new Scat label, and duly secured a deal with London Records; the line-up went through its final teething problems when the latter two were replaced, in turn – via short-termers Anthony Barabas, Billy Etheridge, Michael “Cadillac” Johnson and Peter Perez – by Rube/Frank Beard and Dusty Hill (both from American Blues).
Bouyed by a regional Top 50 hit, `(Somebody Else Been) Shaking Your Tree’, ZZ TOP’S FIRST ALBUM {*6} appeared in the early months of 1971, its stark title matching the raw simplicity of the southern blues/boogie contained within the grooves. This straightforward approach also extended to the group’s music biz master-plan. Innuendo and rambunctious rock was the order of the day, while other mainly Gibbon titles such as `Brown Sugar’, `Neighbor, Neighbor’ and `Bedroom Thang’ came across guttural and spirited.
ZZ TOP were first and foremost a live band, their punishing touring schedule, largely in the American South initially, would eventually turn grassroots support into record sales as well as honing their musical skills for future glories. The trio’s follow-up set, RIO GRANDE MUD (1972) {*7}, spawned the group’s first hit single in `Francene’, while the power-drive swaggering of `Just Got Paid’ (one of three penned with Bill Ham) and `Whiskey’n Mama’, `Down Brownie’ and `Bar-B-Q’ were precursors to LYNYRD SKYNYRD and The OUTLAWS.
ZZ TOP only really began to make an impact with 1973’s TRES HOMBRES {*7}. Occasionally reminiscent of “Exile…”-era `Stones (example the smokin’ `La Grange’ Top 50 hit), the group had begun to perfect their combination of boot-leather riffing and Texas blues drawl; Gibbons’ nifty axe-work oiling the beast nicely (he’d previously drawn public praise from none other than JIMI HENDRIX) secured the deal on the likes of `Jesus Just Left Chicago’, `Waitin’ For The Bus’ and `Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers’.
Just over a half-hour long, FANDANGO! (1975) {*6} was split between a live side (featuring versions of ELVIS’s `Jailhouse Rock’ and WILLIE DIXON’s `Backdoor Love’) plus a glorious studio side (including classics `Tush’ – a Top 20 smash! – and `Heard It On The X’), although the Top 10 set somehow missed an opportunity to seal the deal in respects of its unfamiliar format.
By 1976, the group were popular enough to take their “Worldwide Texas Tour” on the road, a mammoth operation which certainly equalled The ROLLING STONES in terms of stage set and ticket sales; ZZ TOP were now one of America’s biggest grossing home-grown acts. However, although it scraped into the Top 20, TEJAS (1977) {*4} found the trio awash with production values; mini morsels stemming from Jagger-Richards-like minor hit `It’s Only Love’ and `Arrested For Driving While Blind’.
ZZ TOP didn’t really garner widespread critical acclaim until the release of DEGUELLO (1979) {*8}, their first album for Warner Brothers. The record’s gristly blues licks and knowing, often surreal sense of humour demonstrating that the trio were considerably more sussed than the backwoods caricatures which they were often portrayed as (a perception which they often perpetuated), the deadpan `Cheap Sunglasses’, a blistering cover of ELMORE JAMES’ `Dust My Broom’ and a version of ISAAC HAYES’ `I Thank You’ (a Top 40 entry) proven highlights.
EL LOCO (1981) {*6} was never as good, the boys insisting that what a woman really wanted was, ahem… a `Pearl Necklace’, as suggested in the track itself; `Ten Foot Pole’, `Tube Snake Boogie’ and `It’s So Hard’ were others toying with their double entendre-styled party rock.
The tongue-in-cheek smut only really got underway with ELIMINATOR (1983) {*8}. However, the gleaming videos for the likes of the pounding `Gimme All Your Lovin’’, `Sharp Dressed Man’ and of course, `Legs’, featuring more leggy lovelies than a ROBERT PALMER video. These MTV staples also introduced ZZ TOP’s famous red Ford Coupe, the fearsome motor becoming as much of an 80s icon as FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD t-shirts. Musically, the album was almost a complete departure, turbo-charging the guitars way up in the mix and boosting the overall sound with a synthesized throb. This trademark electro-boogie would see ZZ TOP through the best part of a decade. Deservedly, the record was a massive worldwide success, a multi-million seller which marked the first instalment in a three-album semi-concept affair built around the “Eliminator” car. `Got Me Under Pressure’, `I Got The Six’, `If I Could Only Flag Her Down’ and `TV Dinners’ were equal to anything AC/DC, MOTORHEAD or STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN were achieving around the same time.
For AFTERBURNER (1985) {*6}, the car – don’t laugh! – had turned into a space rocket flying high above the Earth, although it seemed as if they’d also jettisoned the cocksure synth-stomp of old. `Sleeping Bag’, `Stages’, the smooth `Rough Boy’ and `Velcro Fly’ were competent enough, the videos ensuring another MTV bonanza and healthy sales.
RECYCLER (1990) {*5} continued in much the same vein, but only `Doubleback’ (also used in the Back To The Future III movie), the HOWLIN’ WOLF-esque `My Head’s In Mississippi’ and `Give It Up’ had any real substance. Relatively poor sales duly saw the group parting ways with Warners and starting afresh with R.C.A. Records. Never the most prolific outfit, ZZ TOP only released a further four albums in the 90s, the compilation ZZ TOP GREATEST HITS (1992) {*9} (including a rendition of ELVIS’s `Viva Las Vegas’), ANTENNA (1994) {*5}, RHYTHMEEN (1996) {*4} and XXX (1999) {*3}, all at last abandoning their outdated 80s sound in favour of a leaner, meaner return to their roots.
The ‘Top strode boldly into the new millennium with MESCALERO (2003) {*4}, not quite the ever anticipated return to tequila-swilling cross-border boogie which its title suggested, but at least another tentative step in the right direction. They mightn’t sell as many records these days but (save Frank, that is!) they’ve still got beards as long and grizzly as a DEEP PURPLE guitar solo, and that’s what counts!
But for a CD counterpart to the LIVE FROM TEXAS (2008) {*5} DVD, ZZ’s recording schedule output had been minimal to say the least. The letting go of manager Bill Ham in 2006 had left room in the tank for exploration: the revered Rick Rubin was worth waiting the extra few years or so to test his production Midas Touch skills. 2012’s LA FUTURA {*7} was a welcome-back set of 12-bar boogie assaults that furnished them with their first Top 10 set since “Recycler”. Long-time fans of the bearded ones (plus Beard!), would be in their element with the croaky and fuzz-tailed `I Gotsta Get Paid’ (Popeye would be proud), `Chartreuse’ (a modern-day `Tush’) and the LYNYRD/AC/DC-sprinkled `Flyin’ High’.
Dividing critics and fans alike in his subsequent solo attempt to fill a tiny black hole left behind by Carlos SANTANA, the Cuban-inflected BILLY GIBBONS AND THE BFG’s PERFECTAMUNDO {*6}, spun into the lower regions of the transatlantic charts in November 2015. Featuring three slick cover takes of blues/RnR staples, `Got Love If You Want It’, `Treat Her Right’ and `Baby Please Don’t Go’, the BFG’s – comprising Alx Garza, G.L. Moon, co-producer Joe Hardy and pianist Martin Guigui – seemed at ease to slide a little grime and grease into AOR. Freestyling on a road away from Route 66 and anything remotely 666, the “Top” was lowered on the group’s convertible Cuban-rock, acolytes ready to sit in the back-seat of the blues bus for `Pickin’ Up Chicks On Dowling Street’, `Hombre Sin Nombre’, and the title track.
If armchair fans had lost touch with ZZ TOP, then a catch-up collision of their devil-ish best tunes popped up on LIVE: GREATEST HITS FROM AROUND THE WORLD (2016) {*6} – London, Paris, Berlin and Rome the only cities stamping their work visas/passports. Cameos in England with JEFF BECK for `Rough Boy’ and an anchor cover of `Sixteen Tons’ marked something out of the norm for the ZZ’s, and one could also smell the sweat of the crowd on `Cheap Sunglasses’, `Jesus Just Left Chicago’, `Tush’ etc.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD // rev-up Jun2012-Sep2016

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